© Norman Sperling, January 31, 2015
Barbara and David Mikkelson run the famous rumor/urban legend website snopes.com . I enjoyed a lunch with them in 2010.
I asked them to draw some generalities from the profusion of individual narratives they research. Science most often comes in when:
* it buttresses a fear, due to fears of technology and manufacturing,
* or when people claim it validates a religious or political point.
Science rarely makes their top-25 list. Fabrications such as the Weekly World News concocted would often make it. The Mars-closest-in-August claim does recur every summer. Aspartame, and exploding cell phones, often make the top 25.
A fascinating aspect of legends is how attributions converge on the most famous examples in their category:
* Stories about a scientist become about Einstein.
* Stories about hamburgers become about McDonald’s.
* Stories about chicken become about Kentucky Fried Chicken.
* Stories about soft drinks become about Coca Cola.
Sometimes the attribution to the best exemplar is true, such as the item you’re just finishing about Science in rumors: it’s about snopes.com .
© Norman Sperling, February 21, 2014
I display at a lot of fairs and club meetings. Most prospective customers are pretty close to what I expect: people of similar interests and varying expertise.
But I also meet people, often running other booths, who got shortchanged in their education and don’t know how to move forward.
I recently encountered an eager man who bubbled over about the service he was selling. I immediately recognized it as pseudoscience. When he started reciting details, I several times shook my head and said, no, that’s NOT the way things work. That’s not so.
He was stunned.
From what he said and what he asked, I guessed his science education never went past middle school, so I sold him a high-school textbook with a chapter on what he needed to know. He dove in like he’d been starved. He’ll learn an awful lot from that book.
There are scads of reasons for education not to “take”.
* Unfavorable home situations that prevent or distract.
* Competing pulls.
* Not knowing the local language well enough.
* Belief systems that block out reality.
* An earlier experience, such as a bad teacher, “turned them off”.
* Illness: I met a student who had an ear infection when her class studied division in grade school. She didn’t hear the lessons, and still couldn’t divide 6 years later. She was sensational at covering up.
* Cultural hangups that prevent using resources.
* Personal hangups. I know a person who was telling me some pretty wise things, so I recommended that he “tell it to a piece of paper” -- write it down. He replied “If I could do that, my whole life would be different” -- that’s one of his hangups.
These are nothing to feel guilty about, just bad luck.
But our society also excels at ways to learn what you didn’t learn before.
* The public library.
* Educational TV.
* Online encyclopedias, animations, lectures, lessons, and so on.
* Public lectures.
* Informal education like museums, and parks with rangers and signage.
* Adult school.
* Community college courses.
These are free or cheap. People can take them in any amount at any pace, whenever it suits them.
A whole lot of people do. When I was giving planetarium shows, it was not rare for a person to come up to the console afterward and ask basic questions. In teaching at community colleges, and night courses at universities, I’ve met people who are trying to better themselves, and get more satisfying careers. (Not necessarily better-paying! 2 of my most-memorable students were a truck driver and a plumber, who made more money than I did, but with dramatically less satisfaction.)
But many people don’t think of all the resources available to them; I have to push the recommendations. That applies even more to folks like the first guy mentioned above. He could have learned the folly of his spiel in a library, in an encyclopedia, from a used-book store, a new-book store, a GED course, a community college course, or from a thousand on-line resources. It never occurred to him to do so.
As a purveyor of pseudoscience, he’s not evil, he’s just ignorant. Maybe the folks who promote the program he bought into might be evil, or maybe they’re just ignorant too.
Our culture would be enormously improved by folks of all ages patching the holes in their knowledge. Many will probably choose their favorite entertainment instead. But many will eventually, as it suits them, learn up on their weaknesses. That would decrease the market for pseudoscience as well as the number of its pushers. It will also improve the overall functioning of Society. We’ve already got the stuff in place. All we need is to effectively recommend it to folks who need it.
What don’t you know, that you should?
Vladimir Rubtsov: The Tunguska Mystery. 318 p. Springer 2009.
Review © Norman Sperling, February 22, 2013
The explosion of a large meteor above Chelyabinsk, on the same day as asteroid 2012 DA14 buzzed Earth, has brought back the riddle of the Tunguska event.
In 1908, far to the east of the Ural Mountains, over the Podkamennaya Tunguska River in central Siberia, something - an icy, rocky asteroid or comet? - slammed into Earth's atmosphere, exploded in the air, flattened a forest, and triggered unusually bright and colorful skies over much of the world for many days.
The site is terribly remote. Communication and transportation were primitive in the terminal times of the tsarist empire. After World War I, the new Soviet regime clamped down on communications with non-Communists.
Very little news about the Tunguska explosion leaked out through the Iron Curtain. A few Soviet scientists explored, but hardly any of their data reached the West. Eyewitness reports were gathered, but we didn't see them. Important scientists declared solutions, but we only heard their answers, not their supporting data.
The absence of scientific data opened infinite possibilities for speculation. Creative minds responded by suggesting a colorful variety of explanations. Some of those caught the public imagination.
Unbeknownst to the West, much the same was happening in the Soviet Union. By selecting favorite reports, theorists put together plausible narratives which hung together only as long as all other data were ignored.
This grated on a lot of Soviet scientists. After Stalin died in 1953, Khrushchev loosened the repression. Professional and amateur scientists responded creatively by founding the Independent Tunguska Exploration Group in 1958. These days the fashionable name for this centuries-old practice is "Citizen Science".
Investigators gathered information to plug holes in previous work. We hardly ever heard their results. In this book, an ITEG stalwart describes their research, findings, and speculations.
The story is FAR more complex than I had imagined. Exploration found a great deal more information than I had ever heard of, much of it scientifically strong. Practically all of it appears to contradict some theory or other. Several fairly strong solutions have been proposed, accounting for large portions of the observations. No solution, however, has yet accounted for all the credible data.
So this book is a superb example of exploratory science, and a superb example of a scientist who understands how much he doesn’t understand.
The most frequent suggestions are comets or meteoroids or asteroids. One huge problem is that our concepts of these have changed often, and radically, over the last 100 years, so the proposal means different things to different people at different times. Recent understandings relate comets to primitive chondrite meteoroids, which are extremely similar to asteroid types C, P, D, and K. Those meteoroids are probably chips of those asteroids. If they have surface ice, they appear as "comets". The Sun can vaporize surface ice while leaving ice inside.
Yet many details, from the exact pattern of the fallen trees, to eyewitnesses describing one object approaching from the south while a second one came from the east, to chemical traces (ytterbium!), don't seem to concur.
The suggestion that appears to satisfy the most data - still not all - posits 2 huge and powerful spacecraft, both turning to converge at the explosion site, and only one continuing westward from there. Science fiction fans like this scenario a lot better than most scientists do, but it satisfies more data than any other.
The comet concept satisfies the second-greatest quantity of data.
Now that this book has taught me a great deal more about Tunguska science, I am no longer confident about any one explanation. Rubtsov is right: we don't know enough. Previous such cases include:
• discovering the constancy of the speed of light, before Relativity;
• Auguste Comte's declaration that the composition of remote stars must remain forever unknown, before spectroscopy;
• noticing fundamental parallels in living things, like backbones, before Evolution.
Enjoy this book for its rich scientific and historical narrative, its scientific rigor, and its logical structure. The book is well written, well edited, and well produced. There's just enough Russian syntax to suggest local flavor. But if you want The Answer to what hit Tunguska, it's not here, nor anywhere else. Yet. Check back later.
J. Allan Danelek: The Great Airship of 1897: a Provocative Look at the Most Mysterious Aviation Event in History. Adventures Unlimited Press 2009.
review © Norman Sperling, February 10, 2013
A mysterious bright light in the night sky sparked this big flap at the end of the 1800s. It was unexpected and unexplained. Reports grossly contradict one another, so investigators can favor very different inferences, interpretations, and explanations simply by selecting different reports to prefer.
In the 1800s, no one considered the light to be a space ship from another planet. Paranormal boosters have made that case more recently. Since this book's author energetically investigates paranormal and Fortean matters, I was all prepared for the author to go Paranormal.
He never did. The one place where the paranormal is invoked by others, Danelek dismisses it tersely. This book has nothing at all to do with the paranormal. Every explanation is purely naturalistic. Danelek invokes real physics, real engineering, and common human nature. At every turn, Danelek reports what records show, and points out contradictions and gaping ignorance. He discusses assorted possibilities.
He selects reports that can be strung together into a consistent story, and says that's why he prefers those. The data are so sketchy that there is lots of room for speculation. Danelek offers several speculations, but clearly labels each one as it comes up. Danelek builds a case that it was a searchlight coming from a lighter-than-air dirigible-type airship.
Astronomer Charles Burckhalter, among others, said the "searchlight" was actually the brilliant planet Venus, which dominated the western sky in late 1896 and early 1897.
Danelek ties his case together in a fictionalized story, which he blatantly labels as fiction at both its start and its end. A few readers may deplore putting fiction in this book, but as long as the reader can tell what's fiction, that's fine. In fact, my motive to read this book was to see if I could adapt part of its story for astronomical fiction that I'm writing. I can.
The illustrations are quite clear and plausible. The editing is not as sharp as the writing. Several misspellings got into print. A sharper editor would have squelched several redundancies.
Overall, this is an interesting, entertaining, and rational book. It shines some light on a bright light of long ago.
Norman Sperling, December 29, 2011
Physical evidence, scientifically analyzed, reveals reality far better than anecdotes, story-telling, and wishful thinking.
Proponents of the "Yeti" (Himalayan "abominable snowman") touted a finger taken from a "Yeti" hand displayed at the Pangboche Temple’s monastery in Nepal in 1958. If the Yeti is a real species, that wouldn't contradict Science, but it would add a fascinating complication to the complex story of humanity's heritage.
The finger's DNA has now been analyzed. It's human.
The news report pointedly doesn't state *which* finger it is, but I have my suspicions.
© Norman Sperling, December 8, 2011
In tradition and much testing, the practice of "acupuncture" includes the principle of "meridians". The same is true, unsurprisingly, of skeptics' analyses. A lot of those analyses end up confused, because, skeptical magazines report, they find a weak positive correlation for acupuncture, though strictly negative for meridians.
Skeptics conventionally address "claims". If they can discredit a component of the claim - like meridians - they consider the claim rejected. They consider "acupuncture" as a single claim.
But if you scrupulously separate out the components of tests, as reported in skeptical magazines, acupuncture appears to have some positive pain-killing effects, whereas meridians don't seem to mean anything. So, puncture works, acu doesn't.
I don't care what's claimed. I care how Nature works. The claims and their testing merely serve to supply more evidence of that. If "puncture" appears to be a mild analgesic, investigate if that can be used medically. If "meridians" are nonsense, say just that, without smearing something real and potentially useful.
If skeptics could swallow evidence contrary to their expectation, they'd demonstrate that Science is the standard, rather than rhetoric. The public would view skeptics as far more reasonable.
© Norman Sperling, August 20, 2011
One of the most interesting and scientifically-important people I ever met was the independent scientist William R. Corliss. Since the 1970s, he was by far the world's finest collector, categorizer, and ranker of scientific anomalies. He made himself the world's greatest authority on things that don't fit the paradigms of the times.
I had a long meeting with him in 1988, and corresponded several times with him afterward. He was always a scrupulous scientist and a quiet, reserved, proper gentleman. Bill died of a heart attack on July 8th, age 84.
Science always notices a lot of things, and it takes time to fit these pieces into the puzzle - sometimes months, sometimes centuries. Until they fit, the odder pieces are anomalies. Narrow-minded swallowers of paradigms-they-are-taught ignore them whenever possible, and pooh-pooh them when they're brought up. Broader-minded investigators of Nature comb through them for items that might, now, fit; or items that now point more clearly in some novel direction. Yet others (including most astronomers who mentioned Corliss) browse through anomalies simply because they're neat, or fun, or inspiring, or awesome, or remind us that we don't know everything and may never.
Bill spent enormous numbers of hours combing scientific literature for such anomalies, often driving to Washington, DC, to use the Library of Congress and other scientific libraries. He was looking for evidence about how Nature works.
Just what constituted an anomaly changed with the times. Early on, when plate tectonics was the "challenger" paradigm, he sought out nuggets that supported it; later, when it became the "dominant" paradigm, he sought items to the contrary. He supported Chip Arp's challenge to interpreting galaxies' red shifts as distance markers. He was very slow to accept that Arp seems to be, simply, wrong ... but he always followed the evidence. Several items that Corliss plucked from scientific literature surely are mistaken, but more are valid, though (as with everything else in Science) subject to refinement and reinterpretation.
Bill compiled his findings into vast topical compendia. Most of the drawings were commissioned from geologist/illustrator Jack Holden, who is also a JIR contributor, though Corliss and Holden never met. A few of his books were marketed rather widely by large publishing companies. All the rest were published by The Sourcebook Project, which was Bill, his wife Virginia, and their barn. We retail several of his books.
Bill was best known as an "anomalist", most praised by the Society for Scientific Exploration, and bloggers of the "unknown". He had many fans among seekers of cryptids, UFOs, and other things beyond Science.
Bill experienced organized Skeptics as debunkers, enforcers for mainstream-paradigm-as-law, and thus enemies of anomalies. He definitely recognized that some claims are indeed bunk, deserving and needing debunking.
The scientific establishment usually ignored him. A few, like Joe Ashbrook, acted visibly uneasy at the mention of his compilations. That always confused me, because all Bill quoted were scientific publications.
He read JIR, and quoted it in his bimonthly newsletter, always with tongue pointedly in cheek.
Bill lived on a farm north of Baltimore. He was a man of his times: though he did commission a website for his wares, the torrent of spam scared him away from eMail. His website doesn't take credit cards, and directs customers to mail checks. Every communication I got from him over several decades was typed on a typewriter, not a word-processor.
I hope ways are found to preserve his files and keep his work available to the public.
© Norman Sperling, August 4, 2011
3 articles in 3 days have exposed hoaxes and scams.
A bizarre story claiming that users of Microsoft's Internet Explorer browser are a lot dumber than users of Firefox, Chrome, and Opera, was unmasked in a day or 2. Wired's Epicenter reveals the hoax and sparks its perpetrator to claim it was a joke.
The horrifying "collar bomb" in Sydney, Australia, was a hoax. Who concocted it?
For 140 years, Scots have been proud of their unbelievably-loyal dog, Greyfriars Bobby. Reuters reports that it was a "scam to lure tourists".
Do the media you read tell you the initial claim, but not that it was a hoax? Time to smarten your news sources.
© Norman Sperling, June 9, 2011
The Textbook League fought pseudoscience and other idiocy in pre-college textbooks for the last few decades. The human part of the League is disbanding, but stalwart ichthyologist Bill Bennetta is personally keeping their website online: www.textbookleague.org . Their reference material remains available even though they no longer send experts galloping to assorted rescues.
© Norman Sperling, May 15, 2011
Some substances that are usually regarded as having no effect actually do have effects.
* Water, as in homeopathic treatments.
* Placebos, as in medical tests and treatments.
I have seen homeopathic treatments strongly criticized as being useless and having no effect, because they’re “only” water. Yet water itself has many effects.
* Peeing usually makes you feel better.
* Drinking a lot of water is recommended for several medical and nutritional situations. It is suspected to dilute or flush precipitates that would otherwise form painful kidney stones, for example.
* And drinking a lot is often recommended in treating colds and other illnesses.
So plain old water, whether labeled homeopathic or not, CAN have effects.
“Placebo” is Latin for “I make you feel good”. That’s an effect, not the absence of one. (By that centuries-old definition, boyfriends and girlfriends are placebos.)
In the last half century, “placebo”’s definition and applications have changed importantly several times, but discussions rarely specify which version is meant. Always check just what speakers and writers mean by the term.
Placebos are rarely neutral and rarely have zero effects. Many different substances that have been used as placebos have known effects.
* Sugar, as in “sugar pills”, makes people feel better. Huge quantities of sugary treats are consumed because they make people feel better. Sugar levels in the blood affect athletic and intellectual performance as well as mood. Mary Poppins taught us that “a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down”. Sugar is NOT neutral!
* In some cases, the sugar is lactose, which often has major detrimental effects. For 30% of American adults, and 70% of the world’s adults, lactose intolerance generates explosive, compelling diarrhea. A good reference is Steve Carper’s Milk is Not for Every Body, published by Facts on File, 1995.
* For testing against new medicines, several other substances are combined to mimic known effects of the tested substance. Some of these qualities make people feel better, some make people feel worse. They are NOT neutral!
Scholarly books on placebos:
* Anne Harrington, ed: The Placebo Effect – an Interdisciplinary Exploration. Harvard U Pr 1997. RM331.P53 1999
* Daniel E. Moerman: Meaning, Medicine, and the “Placebo” Effect. Cambridge U Pr. R726.5.M645 2002. Says the effect is in the meaning.
* Arthur K. Shapiro: The Powerful Placebo: From Ancient Priest to Modern Physician. JHU Pr. RM331.S53 1997. scholarly source for Thompson & Moerman.
* W. Grant Thompson: The Placebo Effect and Health. Prometheus 320p. R726.5.T488 2005. excellent survey. Use the effect!